Originally published in The Akron Beacon Journal
January 24, 1993
HUNTER OF HUMANS
MAN WHO'D AIM AT ANYTHING IS FINALLY THE LAW'S TARGET
By DAVID KNOX,
On a cloudless Saturday in November, a detective aboard an FBI surveillance plane got a sick feeling as he watched what was unfolding on a remote Harrison County road.
From high above, Detective Sgt. Walter Wilson could easily monitor the red Toyota pickup truck and its driver, Thomas Lee Dillon, the man suspected of being the sniper killer of as many as five men as they jogged, hunted or fished in rural Ohio.
Ahead was a T-intersection. To the right, a jogger.
Though it was barely past 9 a.m., Wilson knew Dillon was already loaded with beer. What he didn't know was whether Dillon was packing any weapons.
Wilson watched nervously as the pickup reached the intersection.
Dillon turned left.
The knot in Wilson's stomach relaxed.
The surveillance continued for several uneventful hours. So ended another frustrating day for the Tuscarawas County sheriff's detective.
The case has been a murder investigator's nightmare: All of the victims were alone, chosen at random and killed with high-powered weapons - each in a different county in east-central Ohio.
Worse yet, the killer seemed to know exactly what authorities were up against.
"Don't feel bad about not solving this case," taunted a letter to a Belmont County newspaper just before the first anniversary of the slaying of Jamie Paxton, a 21-year-old deer hunter killed on Nov. 10, 1990. Authorities are certain the letter was written by the killer. "You could interview till doomsday everyone that Jamie Paxton ever met in his life and you wouldn't have a clue to my identity....With no motive, no weapon, and no witnesses you could not possibly solve this crime."
Authorities said Friday they have taken a step toward that: Dillon, 42, was indicted on two counts of aggravated murder in the 1992 deaths of fishermen Claude Hawkins and Gary Bradley. If convicted, Dillon could be sentenced to death. Investigators said he remains the prime suspect in the other three deaths.
Dillon's attorney, Roger M. Synenberg of Cleveland, said Friday he hadn't seen the indictment and couldn't comment about the charges.
How investigators built their case is a study in dogged persistence, tips and luck - and a question Dillon asked of a friend: "Do you think I've ever killed somebody?"
He has a big fan in his mother-in-law
On the surface, Dillon appeared to be an unlikely suspect. A husband and father, he had worked 22 years for the city of Canton, living a quiet life in a middle-class ranch house in southern Stark County's Pike Township.
His mother-in-law, Anne Elsass, speaks lovingly of him. "We're a very close-knit family," she said.
But authorities and some people who know him give a startlingly different picture: He was a gun fanatic who had fired so many times he had lost some of his hearing. His bullets found their mark not just in paper targets and tin cans, but also in windows, street lamps and more than 1,000 dogs, cats and other animals he boasted of killing over the last 20 years.
Authorities also believe he could be responsible for many of the reported 108 arsons of barns and abandoned houses since 1988 in Tuscarawas, Harrison, Carroll and Coshocton counties.
"I'm a confirmed pyromaniac," Dillon bragged to a fellow hunter in the early 1980s.
But investigators didn't even know Dillon's name until they received a phone call Aug. 26.
"I'd like to meet with you," the informant remembers telling Detective Wilson. He said he had seen reports about the task force that had been formed to solve the killings "and I just think I got a guy" who should be investigated as a possible suspect.
The informant, who agreed to be interviewed on condition his name not be used, said he has known Dillon since their junior year at the former Glenwood High School in Plain Township.
Several other classmates remembered Dillon as extremely intelligent but a loner with few friends. His 1968 senior yearbook lists no extracurricular activities.
"Tom was removed from the group," said classmate Ronald Skelton. "He was a person who marched to the beat of a different drummer - separated from the mainstream."
Thomas Breit said that Dillon was quiet - especially in a group. "I always liked him," Breit said. "I got a kick out of him - he made me laugh."
Informant gave detective glimpse at the hidden side
But the informant gave Wilson a glimpse of Dillon others hadn't seen.
"I used to go out hunting with him because we were gun enthusiasts," the informant said. "In the beginning, it was all pretty legitimate....But then we started hitting these dumps in southern Stark County. We'd go down there hunting rats and things.
"I remember we ran into a couple of scraggly dogs one time. They were all diseased - they were sick. I remember they had open sores. Tom said, 'Do you think I ought to kill them?' And I said, 'Well, you'd probably be doing them a favor.' I remember him shooting them. I didn't think too much about it - wild dogs can be vicious.
"Then he started shooting dogs - just dogs along the road. I said, 'Tom, shooting a wild dog is one thing, but that dog doesn't look very wild to me.' He said, 'You can't let them damn things be running around.' I let it go by once or twice, but then I said, 'Tom, you got to quit it. Or I won't go out with you. Those are somebody's pets. Somebody loves them. It's just not right to do that.' "
Dillon began keeping count of the animals he killed on a calendar in his bedroom of his family's home on 37th Street Northwest in Canton. And what did he think of people? The informant said Dillon also kept a calendar for all the girls he'd had sex with in his teen-age years.
Everything a target: street lights also shot
Animals weren't Dillon's only targets.
"I saw him shoot out a street light one night with a shotgun," the informant said. Another time, Dillon told him he'd cut off the speakers at a drive-in theater and thrown them through the windows of another high school.
Another incident Dillon related to the informant was more serious.
"Back in the year we graduated, we were having a problem with some other high school. One of these standoffs - you throw something at my car, I throw something at your car. But nobody ever throws a punch."
One night, one of the other guys kicked his car. Tom "pulled out this gun and took a shot at this guy," the informant said. "I asked him this: 'Did you really mean to hit him?' And he said, 'Yes, I meant to hit him.' "
The vandalism continued after Dillon graduated from high school, first while taking classes at Kent State University's Stark campus and later while home on vacation from Ohio State University.
The informant wasn't the only one aware of Dillon's shooting sprees.
"In the summer months, we would all hang out at Willow Springs swimming pool on 55th Street," said a man who remembers Dillon. "I just ran around with him a couple years. We all drank together.
"I never saw him shoot a gun. But I heard other people talking about him - 'Ah, crazy Dillon went out drinking and he was shooting a pistol out the window or he shot the windows out of a school.' I heard things like that a couple times."
Just "plinking" at faraway farmer
The informant and two others remember a much scarier story going around the swimming pool and told over beers.
Once, while driving back from Atwood Lake in Carroll County, "Tom pulled off the side of the road and pulled out this gun and started shooting at this farmer," the informant said. "Apparently the farmer was a good way off - two, three hundred yards."
One of the others in the car protested, "What the hell are you doing?"
Dillon explained that he couldn't hit a target at that distance with a pistol.
"So I'm just plinking at him," he said.
The animal killings continued after Dillon graduated from Ohio State in 1972, went to work as a draftsman for the Canton Water Department and married Catherine Elsass, a nurse from Alliance, in 1978.
By the early 1980s, Dillon was boasting that the count on the death calendar had reached 500. The confidential informant said he had had enough.
"I just didn't have anything more to do with him," he said. "In fact, if I'd see him someplace, I didn't even wave to him or talk with him."
Called a bad hunter, he shot at host's cats
The informant wasn't the only person to break off relations with Dillon.
"Dillon was a bad hunter," said a man who hunted with him for several years but became increasingly disturbed by Dillon's behavior. "He would shoot at farmer's cats after getting permission to hunt on their land. He just didn't care."
Dillon once boasted of killing a deer caught in high water while crossing a river. He brought the deer home without field dressing it.
"He gutted the carcass in his yard and made a mess of it," the hunter said. The hunter said he helped out by hosing the carcass down.
But Dillon didn't seem to understand the concept of friendship: He never offered to do a favor or asked for one.
"It was always a trade," he said. "I'll do this, if you do that."
The hunter also thought it unusual that Dillon "never talked about women' - either in a locker-room way or any other manner.
"He never mentioned his wife and love in the same sentence," he said.
Even carried weapons while riding a bike
Dillon did display passion for weapons, the hunter said, and "was always changing guns." While Dillon occasionally bought weapons at gun shows, most came from private sales, through classified ads and mail order from gun dealers.
The hunter said Dillon almost always carried weapons - "even when he rode a bike."
Dillon didn't just collect guns. The hunter estimated Dillon fired about 1,000 rounds a year in target practice - so much that he damaged his hearing. He also used a crossbow.
Despite all the practice, the hunter said, Dillon was only a mediocre marksman - especially when the target was a living thing.
Dillon seemed to get a physical thrill out of killing, the hunter said. He recalled Dillon once used a knife to finish off a wounded groundhog.
"He was shaking. He was in a frenzy - wild-eyed."
Dillon didn't have any qualms about talking about killing animals - "He'd just blurt it out."
In the late '70s and early '80s, Dillon would sometimes take dead animals home. "I can remember one pretty good-looking German shepherd," the hunter said. "It still had arrows stuck in him."
The hunter said Dillon would talk about "grossing people out at work" with his tales of killing, but said he didn't seem to understand why people would find the stories disturbing.
Nor did Dillon understand why anyone would object to the way he teased his son, the hunter said.
Once in the mid-1980s, when the boy was 5 or 6, Dillon shot a chipmunk under their backyard grill.
The boy was nearby. "He was curious," the hunter recalled.
Dillon grabbed the dead animal and began chasing his son around the yard until he tripped and fell, the hunter said. "He ground that chipmunk in his face."
Neighborhood Problems: Police told dog was killed
By the mid-1980s, Dillon's activities had attracted attention near home, several residents said. One man said he complained to police because Dillon had killed his dog.
There were indications Dillon was taking his gun farther afield.
The informant ran into Dillon in Newcomerstown in southern Tuscarawas County in about 1986.
"This was the first I'd spoken to him in a long time," the informant said. "I said, 'What in the world are you doing clear down here?' He said, 'Oh, just driving around - this and that.' "
The informant didn't believe him.
"When I saw him in Newcomerstown, I thought, 'He's moving farther south because he's still up to his old ways.' "
Despite his suspicions, the informant renewed his friendship with Dillon in 1989. Again, their common bond was an interest in firearms.
"They moved the Ohio Gun Collectors Association gun show up to Cleveland, and I wasn't a member," the informant said. Dillon invited him to be his guest.
"He said he had stopped killing animals, so I said, 'I guess we can be friends again.' "
The gun shows were held five or six times a year and on the long drives together, Dillon and the informant would discuss guns, hunting - and sometimes, serial murders.
Dillon talked about how easy murder could be
Both Dillon and the informant had read many books about serial killers.
"I remember one time...he and I were driving and he said, "Do you realize you can go out into the country and find somebody and there are no witnesses? You can shoot them. There is no motive. Do you realize how easy murder would be to get away with?"
"I said, 'Yeah, but why would you do it?' "
On a trip to a gun show last summer, Dillon asked a more disturbing question.
"We were talking about (Florida serial killer) Ted Bundy and how can a guy get away with all that. Tom said, 'Do you think I've ever killed somebody?' "
"The question really caught me off guard. I said, 'No, I don't think so.' " Dillon repeated the question.
"The way he said that to me was really scary," the informant remembered. "I'd never seen him like that before. I thought to myself, 'Has anybody been shot?' "
After seeing reports, informant called FBI
In August, the informant read in a newspaper that authorities had linked the slayings of five outdoorsmen in Ohio to a lone killer and that a federal, state and local task force had been established. A few days later, the informant saw an account on a television crime news program.
Several days later - after wrestling with the decision - the informant called the FBI number listed in the newspaper story. He left a message on an answering machine. When the FBI didn't return his call, he tried one of the other numbers in the newspaper - the Tuscarawas County Sheriff's Department. He reached Detective Wilson on Aug. 26.
By that time, the Southeastern Ohio Homicide Task Force had received dozens of tips. None had panned out.
On the surface, the informant's tip about Dillon looked like another dead end.
Called a dedicated and intelligent employee
With the exception of minor disciplinary action for tardiness and absenteeism in the '70s, Dillon's 22-year work record was good.
"Tom is a dedicated and highly intelligent employee, and these qualities are reflected in his work," wrote his supervisor, J.D. Williams, in a Dec. 2 letter to Dillon's attorney after his arrest. "He gets along well with the other employees and his attitude is always positive."
Dillon had only two known brushes with the law.
In 1969, while he was a student at Ohio State, Dillon was investigated for possessing a military weapon - an antique Russian mortar. Authorities decided not to press charges after determining that the mortar was more of a collector's item than a weapon. The second incident was more recent.
In August 1991, Dillon was cited by a game warden for illegal target practicing near a state hunting area in southern Stark County. While target shooting is a misdemeanor - Dillon was fined $200 in Canton Municipal Court - the incident led to more serious charges. In a search of his pickup truck, the warden seized a .22-caliber pistol with a silencer.
In March, Dillon was indicted on federal charges of possessing an illegal silencer. Four months later, Dillon pleaded guilty.
Dillon's attorney, Synenberg, said he was optimistic that his client wouldn't serve any jail time because he had promised in the plea bargain to get rid of his weapons and not buy any more.
"Mr. Dillon has lived a law-abiding life," Synenberg wrote in a motion requesting leniency that portrayed Dillon as "an avid and lifelong gun enthusiast" who made a mistake but presented no threat to society.
But when Detective Wilson began to dig, he found ample evidence to support the confidential informant's claims of alarming numbers of animal killings and vandalism.
Dillon's co-workers and neighbors were interviewed by members of the task force. One co-worker, who said he had known Dillon for 20 years, said Dillon's nickname was "Killer" because he often "bragged about shooting dogs and cats," according to court records.
The co-worker and a second city employee described Dillon as a loner. He did not have a good relationship with his wife, they told investigators. Court documents did not elaborate.
The co-workers also provided a possible link between Dillon and the murders of the outdoorsmen: Dillon kept maps on his table and filing cabinet of many of the east-central Ohio counties where the killings occurred.
Bought 18 weapons from licensed co-worker
A second enticing link was established when Dillon's history of firearms purchases showed he had bought numerous weapons from a co-worker who had a federal firearms dealer's license. The dealer's records showed Dillon had bought 18 weapons in the last several years, including four .30-caliber-type rifles and two Mausers of the kind used to kill four of the five outdoorsmen.
Dillon also was knowledgeable about police procedures. In 1980, he had attended Ohio Peace Officers Training in Lawrence Township in Stark County, doing well in the course and graduating with an expert rating in marksmanship.
The portrait of Dillon drawn from the interviews closely matched a psychological profile of the serial killer produced by the FBI.
The profile said the serial killer was a white man at least 30 years old who was an avid hunter and owned at least several weapons. The killer, the profile said, lived within easy driving distance of the slayings.
The killer had above-average intelligence but was introverted and without many friends, and would "resolve personal problems in a cowardly fashion." He might have a drinking problem and "engage in obscene telephone calls, arson fire, vandalism by shooting out windows or tires of vehicles."
"What you have is a hunter of humans," said a noted forensic psychiatrist who has been involved in such celebrated cases as Ted Bundy and Jack Ruby.
Whoever killed the outdoorsmen "did it for his own satisfaction and pleasure," said Dr. Emanuel Tanay, a professor of psychiatry at Wayne State University in Detroit.
"If it's pleasurable to kill dogs and cats at random, the much better prey is humans. They're a bigger trophy. People enjoy killing. Let's face it. That's why they do it."
Killing of a dog provided first link
While the profile pointed to Dillon, it wasn't evidence. Authorities had nothing to connect Dillon to any crime - much less murder.
A dog killing provided the first link. On Sept. 20, someone saw a red Toyota pickup truck near the spot where a dog was killed in Tuscarawas County. A .25-caliber slug was removed from the animal's body. The informant had told Detective Wilson that Dillon owned a similar gun. Wilson asked the informant whether he could buy it. He did, and a ballistic match was made.
Now Wilson, who had been trailing Dillon alone for several weeks, had enough to get the go-ahead for expensive surveillance.
Tuscarawas County Sheriff Harold McKimmie said Wilson's preliminary work convinced the "other task force members that Dillon was a viable suspect." Wilson's biggest job was getting the task force interested in Dillon, McKimmie said.
"From early on, I felt strongly about him," Wilson said.
"He appeared to be your everyday guy. But underneath the surface, he wasn't. Not even close."
Task force tailed him in air and on ground
Beginning in mid-October, the task force tailed Dillon from the air and on the ground about a dozen times - to gun shows and on weekend jaunts of 75 to 125 miles over country roads in Belmont, Harrison, Tuscarawas, Holmes, Coshocton and Carroll counties. Officials said Dillon often bought beer, sometimes as early as 7:15 a.m.
Once, task force members witnessed an example of Dillon's vandalism.
On Nov. 8, investigators in the air saw Dillon stop several times and point what appeared to be a gun. The tailing cars later examined Dillon's apparent targets: four shattered electric meters on oil well pumps, and a stop sign. Dillon also stopped next to a car with a for-sale sign on it, picked up a large rock and threw it through the windshield.
On Nov. 11, task force members lost sight of Dillon on his way home from Belmont County. Later that day, they learned that two cows had been killed with a crossbow in Tuscarawas County. Authorities knew Dillon sometimes used a crossbow. The informant helped obtain several of Dillon's arrows. They matched those recovered from the dead cows.
Officials believe Dillon killed numerous cattle in east-central Ohio.
Plea bargain violated, so arrest decision made
On Nov. 21, authorities followed Dillon to a gun show in New Philadelphia, where he bought a .22-caliber rifle.
The task force faced a tough decision: The purchase of that gun and a .25- caliber handgun at a gun show in Cleveland on Nov. 7 was enough to arrest Dillon for violating his plea bargain on the silencer charge.
But there still was nothing to link him to the killings of the outdoorsmen.
They could wait - but what if authorities lost Dillon again on the winding roads? Ohio's gun deer season would open Nov. 30, drawing some 300,000 hunters into the woods.
Authorities decided not to take the chance. Dillon was arrested Nov. 27 as he emerged from a convenience store in Tuscarawas County.
At first, the gamble looked like a bad one: searches of Dillon's home, vehicles, camper, office and safe deposit box failed to turn up either firearms or other evidence linking him to the slayings.
But at his arraignment in federal court in Akron, where prosecutors argued to keep him in custody, Dillon was named the prime suspect in the serial killings. The storm of publicity that followed brought the task force the break it needed. On Dec. 4, a Stark County man told authorities he had bought a Swedish Mauser from Dillon at a Massillon gun show - on the same day Gary Bradley was killed in Noble County.
Ballistic tests matched the bullets recovered from Bradley and Claude Hawkins, authorities say.
The arrest shocked family members. Dillon's mother-in-law, who lives in Washington Township near Alliance, speaks lovingly of him and refuses to believe that he is a murderer.
Anne Elsass, a retired teacher and guidance counselor at Alliance High School, said Dillon is a witty, kind man who has always had a yen for guns.
Elsass denied that Dillon and her daughter have a shaky marriage and that he has mistreated his son. She said she was unaware that he spent evenings and weekends driving country roads looking for something to shoot.
Elsass said her family stands behind Dillon 100 percent and that she wants to be a character witness when he goes to trial.
She said her daughter, Catherine, who has worked for 20 years as a nurse at Timken Mercy Medical Center in Canton, has turned to her work and faith in God to deal with the revelation that her husband might be a serial killer.
Though Elsass has refused to believe allegations against him, she concluded in an interview in her home: "If they're true, they're true.
"My stomach is churning," she confided. "I have to keep my spirits up for Cathy. Maybe part of me wants to deny this. Tom was always pleasant. He was always joking. He seemed like a son to me."
Authorities said Friday they are still gathering evidence to seek indictments against Dillon in the other three cases.
"The indictment that is being announced today is a very small part of the investigation," Dave Hanna of the FBI's Columbus office said at a news conference.
Sheriff McKimmie says Dillon is "a cold, calculating man. Only Tom Dillon knows everything that he has done."
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